Saturday, April 9, 2016

Strange Book Saturday: Boring Postcards USA

I'm introducing a new series of posts: Strange Book Saturdays!

In these posts, I invite you to gawk with me at oddball books. I won't write these posts every Saturday, but when they do show up it will be on a Saturday (or late Friday evening). Because I am a sucker for alliteration.

The preliminary "strange book" is a long-time favorite of mine: Boring Postcards USA (Phaidon).
Exactly what it says on the tin.
A friend and I used to send each other bizarre books we had discovered, and I think this is the first one she sent me (thanks, Cara!).

I spent three and a half of my college years in northern Indiana, yet I still never managed to cross a stretch of road quite this unremarkable.

Warning: You spend enough time staring at these postcards, you start to believe their claims. When I first saw this photo, I grimaced. Now, it actually makes me a little hungry.

The wonder of the book lies in the fact, not that someone took a photo of each of these places and objects, but that someone turned these photos into mass-produced postcards. What's more, some of these cards have obviously gone through the mail. I like to imagine the sort of messages sent from middle-of-nowhere America:

Dear Joan,
I wish you were here. But for all I know, you are here because "here" is indistinguishable from anywhere else.
In the moments between eating at diners dubbed only "Diner" and driving under the blue eye of a sky that never blinks, along a purgatory of endless interstates, I think of you.

This looks less like a location you'd send a postcard from and more like the setting of a low-budget horror flick.
There's a part of me that desperately wants to take a road trip and find all the places where these photos were taken, to create a "before" and "after" series. Which seems like a waste. It's not as though there aren't many more interesting locales in the world, enough that I will never have time to visit them all. (If you'd like to learn about little-known, non-boring sites to plan a road trip around, check out Atlas Obscura.)

But Boring Postcards appeals to a part of me that relishes innocent delight in the ordinary. Anyone can see the beauty in the Grand Canyon. It takes a vigorous imagination to appreciate the beauties of the Gaines Truck Stop in Boyle, Mississippi. At one point, each of the places depicted here meant something to someone, was worth snapping a photo of or sending a note from. Even if only to say, "This is where I was today when I remembered that I love you."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen: Jim Henson's Labyrinth

                It’s (past) that time again! Time for another episode of Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen.

I know other rock stars were considered for the role, but can you really imagine anyone other than David Bowie playing a convincing Goblin King?

                I know I’ve seen parts of Labyrinth before, and I feel like I must have watched it as a child, but I have more memories of hearing about it than I have of seeing it. There’s a lot I could say about Labyrinth, but what really strikes me is how much it is a story about puberty—specifically, female puberty. Forgive me if I delve briefly into “over-analyzing children’s movies” (this is my favorite game, after “over-analyzing comic books”).
Middle-school me wants every single thing in Sarah's room.
                Jareth is a combination of symbols of male power and sexual fantasy, which explains Sarah’s uncertain relationship with him. (Seriously, the whole Goblin Kingdom is full of phallic imagery, never mind David Bowie’s. . .er, “magic dance.”) The story Sarah tells at the beginning is about the Goblin King being in love with her and offering her some of his power. Pre-journey Sarah is in love with the romantic and fantastical, but her baby brother represents the realities of adult responsibility (and real human relationships). Sarah wants the freedom and power she assumes are attached to adulthood (and romance), but she rejects their responsibilities, particularly the responsibilities of family, which she associates with her stepmother, while idolizing what she assumes was the more romantic life of her deceased actress mother.
                Before Sarah can accept the world of adult responsibilities, however, she has to go deeper “underground,” into the world of dreams and wishes, into her own subconscious.
Me and ever other Muggle who didn't get their Hogwarts letter.
                As with most hero’s journey’s, what the journey represents is change within the hero. As the story continues, Sarah begins to befriend creatures in the labyrinth, she looks for wisdom instead of easy answers, she becomes more generous, and she stops expecting the labyrinth to be “fair.”
                I know people have commented on how the dream ball scene seems a little creepy given that David Bowie is obviously so much older than Jennifer Connelly. Add that to David Bowie’s unsavory history with underage girls, and it becomes difficult to view this scene the way I think it was intended. But if you consider that everything in the Goblin Kingdom comes from Sarah’s fantasies, it’s a little less disturbing. The Goblin King is the romantic “other”—intriguing and sexually mature, dangerous and different, exciting and frightening, but also less threatening than a real flesh-and-blood boy Sarah’s own age would be.
It’s not really clear why the Goblin King would want a baby, but that doesn’t bother me. In puberty logic, it’s not really clear why anyone would want a baby; we’re just vaguely aware that is a thing people want.
                When she momentarily wakes from the dream, she thinks she is looking for “Lancelot”—her bear, but also her dream of courtly love—but what she is really looking for is her baby brother (representing family and responsibility) and her creature friends (representing, well, friends). Her childhood toys represent selfishness and an unwillingness to face adulthood, but paradoxically, her stories from childhood give Sarah the determination she needs to break free from the illusion that the self-centeredness of childhood can last forever.
                When Jareth says that he is “exhausted from living up to your expectations of me”—well, of course he is. He is a projection of everything Sarah thought she wanted. Jareth is pure fantasy, and he promises, “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.” In other words, “give in completely to fantasy and never have to face the hard world of reality again.”
I know, Sarah. This is pretty much what I thought adulthood was going to be like too. (For the record, I am severely disappointed by the lack of masquerade balls in my life.)
When Sarah remembers the line from her book, “You have no power over me,” she is finally realizing her own power—power that has not been given to her by Jareth or any figure of romance, but that is completely her own. And this is the point of story: to give us tools to face our own goblins, to remind us of our power.
                The dance party of rejected goblins that takes place in Sarah’s room at the end might seem to contradict the idea of leaving the realm of fantasy behind, but it actually shows Sarah’s ability to now incorporate her fantasies into her real life without letting them take the place of her real life (it also hints at Sarah now having the ability to make friends). Sarah has accepted reality. She sees that her treasured childhood toys are “junk” when compared to the value of her baby brother. She has traded the black-and-white childhood definitions of “fair” and “unfair” for a view of people that is both less naïve and more forgiving (allowing her to forgive Hoggle’s betrayal). And she is able to see both that she needs others (like Hoggle) and has a power of her own.
Why can't all movies have Escher stairs?
                All that aside, while Labyrinth is fun, and I appreciate seeing a fantasy coming-of-age tale with a female protagonist, it can a bit. . .tedious. I think this is partially because the movie is trying give the viewer a sense of also being trapped in a never-ending labyrinth, which makes the pacing much slower than the average children’s movie (and raises the question: who exactly was this movie intended for?). This also partially because the dialogue becomes repetitive, and at times, falls into the “if a character repeats and repeats something, with increasing freneticism, it must eventually become funny” fallacy. Also, Sarah is not a particularly enjoyable character for a good fourth of the movie (Jennifer Connelly plays a fairly one-note petulant teenager).
                All in all, I enjoyed the movie, even though I frequently caught myself checking the time. I give it three and a half plastic bracelets out of five. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Update: The Hollins Critic, Guest-Blogging, and Bad Movie Ideas

Whenever I start out a week feeling especially ambitious (This is it. This week I'm going to get to everything on my list!), it's like the opening of the movie trailer.

VOICEOVER GUY: It was foolproof plan.

NAIVE PROTAGONIST [writing to-do list]: What could possibly go wrong?

VOICEOVER GUY: Until. . . .

[Music changes to a minor key. Smile on NAIVE PROTAGONIST's face slowly morphs into a confused grimace. . . .] 

[Trailer speeds up. Volcanoes. Poisoned darts. Fire. Man-eating kittens. Close-up of protagonist's horrified face. Explosions. A literal tornado of paper. Ninjas from the future. More fire.]
He's thinking about it; you can tell.

There may or may not have been man-eating kittens, but that's pretty much how the past few weeks have felt.

So there hasn't been a lot of blogging here. I have, however, been working on some new Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen posts, and I should have one of those up soon.

Meanwhile, you can check out my guest blog post, "Your Novel is Boring (Here's Why and How to Fix It)" over at Writing About Writing. I'm now an official guest-blogger there (with a bio and everything), so I guess I'm a real blogger now, in spite of my recent lack of posts here. (If you're reading this, Chris, I'm totally typing out a post for you right now, with my other hand.)

In other news, what should show up in my mailbox but a copy of The Hollins Critic?

With one of my poems on the back cover.
You can either order your own copy to read, or you can create a new poem out of the words visible between my fingers.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reading Goals for 2016

Now that I've finally finished updating my reading challenges from last year, here are my goals for 2016.

A few goals are repeats from last year:
  • at least seven books that are either collections of poetry or books about poetry
  • at least one book by a Nobel-prize-winning writer whose work I'm not well-acquainted with 
  • two Pulitzer-winning books, at least one of them fiction 
And few are new:
bed (n.):
a piece of furniture that prevents bookshelves
  • literature from Argentina (watching a review of Evita made me realize that I know nothing about Argentina)
  • literature from Nepal (based on some suggestions from a missionary couple I know)
  • Seventy books (I've been reading a lot of graphic novels lately, and those tend to be faster reads, so I feel like it's time to update my goals to reflect this)
  • Twenty books that were already on my shelves (digital or physical) at the beginning of 2016 (Maybe this will decrease my TBR pile and even make some space on my shelves? Unless I get rid of my bed, I don't really have wall space left for bookshelves.)
  • One short story a week (It's time to get over my dread of the short story. A friend has given me his old New Yorkers, and I've been reading online publications, like Narrative Magazine. But if you have any short story suggestions, I'd be delighted to hear them.)
What are your reading goals for 2016? Do you have any recommendations for me?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reading Challenge Update for 2015 (Part 2 of 2)

Every year, the number of books I read, the genres I read the most, and the challenges I pursue change. But one thing remains the same. . .I always forget how freaking long it takes to organize this post.

Beyond the PopSugar challenge I posted already, my other reading goals for 2015 were to read
  • at least seven books that are either collections of poetry or books about poetry (Done!)
  • at least one book by a Nobel-prize-winning writer whose work I'm not well-acquainted with (Nadine Gordimer)
  • two Pulitzer-winning books, at least one of them fiction (This one I didn't manage. I did read two Pulitzer-winning books, but they were both poetry. I'd been trying to finish All the Light We Cannot See since before it won the Pulitzer, but there was a huge hold list for it at the library and I kept having to return it before I was finished.)
  • literature from South Africa (Africa39, which contained three short stories by South African authors, and July's People by Nadine Gordimer)
  • literature from Lesotho, focusing particularly (though not exclusively) on work relating to the Zulu people (Chaka by Thomas Mofolo is a fictional retelling of the history of a famous Zulu king) 
  • Fifty books (I'll let you scroll down and see the list for yourself)

YA or middle-grade 
Underline of any color= graphic novel/comic book  

1. Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas—various authors 
2. The Art of Fielding—Chad Harbach (reread)
3.  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—Michael Chabon
4.  Relish: My Life in the Kitchen—Lucy Kinsley
5. Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal—written by G. Willow Wilson, art by Adrian Alphona
6. Batgirl, Vol. 1: Silent Running—written by Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson, art by Damion Scott and Robert Campanella
7. Bone: The Great Cow Race—Jeff Smith
8. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic—Alison Bechdel
9. In the Open—Beatrix Gates  
10. Behind the Beautiful Forevers—Katherine Boo
11. Return of the Dapper Men—written by Jim McCann, art by Janet K. Lee
12. Justice League International, Vol. 2—written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, art by Kevin Maguire and Bill Willingham 
13. Bone: Eyes of the Storm—Jeff Smith
14. How Mirka Got Her Sword (Hereville #1)—Barry Deutsch
15. Gaijin: American Prisoner of War—Matt Faulkner
16. Diadem Me—Bethany Carlson
17. Shadow Hero—written by Gene Luen Yang, art by Sonny Liew
18. How Mirka Met a Meteorite (Hereville #2)—Barry Deutsch
19. Alpha Zulu—Gary Copeland Lilley  
20. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me—Ellen Forney
21. Neurocomic—Dr. Matteo Farinella and Dr. Hana Roš
22. Batman and Robin, Vol. 3: Death of the Family—written by Peter Tomasi and Scott Snyder; art by Patrick Gleason, Ardian Syaf, Greg Capullo, Mick Gray, Vicente Cifuentes, Keith Champagne, Jonathan Glapion, John Kalisz, FCO Plascencia, etc.
23. Mister Orange—Truus Matti, trans. from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
24. New Covenant Bound—Tony Crunk (reread)
25. Hawkeye, Vol. 2: Little Hits—written by Matt Fraction; art by David Aja, Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm, Francesco Francavilla, and Matt Hollingsworth
26. Runaways, Vol. 1: Pride & Joy—written by Brian K. Vaughan; art by Adrian Alphona, David Newbold, Craig Yeung, Brian Reber, etc. 
27. Bone, Vol. 4: The Dragonslayer—Jeff Smith
28. At Home: A Short History of Private Life—Bill Bryson
29. Trillium—Jeff Lemire
30. Zita the Spacegirl—Ben Hatke
31. Through the Woods—Emily Carroll
32. Bone, Vol. 5: Rock Jaw—Master of the Eastern Border—Jeff Smith
33. Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars—Jim Shooter (and many others)
34. Heavenly Bodies—Cynthia Huntington
35. The Museum of Extraordinary Things—Alice Hoffman
36. On Gold Mountain—Lisa See
37. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer—Sydney Padua
38. Fangirl—Rainbow Rowell
39. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl—Timothy Egan
40. In Real Life—written by Cory Doctorow, art by Jen Wang
41. March, Book 2John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell
42. Leaving Megalopolis—written by Gail Simone, art by J. Calafiore and Jason Wright
43. Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara—edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey (three authors from South Africa in collection)
44. Batman Incorporated, Vol. 2: Gotham’s Most Wanted—written by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, Joe Keatinge, Mike Raicht, Dan Didio, and Ethan Van Sciver; art by Chris Burnham, Jason Masters, Nathan Fairbairn, Hi-Fi, Andrei Bressan, Jorge Lucas, Ian Hannin, Dave McCraig, Emanuel Simeon, Brett Smith, John Stanisci, Art Lyon, Dan Didio, and Ethan Van Sciver, etc.
45. Batman and Robin, Vol. 4: Requiem for Damian—written by Peter J. Tomasi; art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, Cliff Richards, Mark Irwin, Marlo Alquiza, John Kalisz, etc.
46. Delights and Shadows—Ted Kooser
47. Mink River—Brian Doyle
48. Diniwe in Dreamland—Desmond Dudwa Phiri 
49. The Cute Girl Network—written by Greg Means and MK Reed, art by Joe Flood
50. Asterios Polyp—David Mazzucchelli
51. Stitches—David Small
52. Cold Mountain—Charles Frazier
53. The Sculptor—Scott McCloud
54. Grayson: Agents of Spyral, Vol. 1—written by Tim Seeley and Tom King; Stephen Mooney, Jeromy Cox, Mikel Janín, Guillermo Ortego, Juan Castro, Carlos M. Mangual, etc.
55. Robot Dreams—Sara Varon
56. Batman and Robin, Vol. 5: The Big Burn—written by Peter Tomasi, art by Patrick Gleason
57. Runaways, Vol. 2: Teenage Wasteland—written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Adrian Alphona
58. Crashboomlove: A Novel in Verse—Juan Felipe Herrera
59. Wuthering Heights—Emily Brontë (reread)
60. Wonder Woman, Vol. 3: The Circle—written by Gail Simone; art by Terry Dodson, Bernard Chang, Ron Randall, and Rachel Dodson  
61. Cinder—Marissa Meyer
62. The Compleat Terminal City—Dean Motter
63. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake—Anna Quindlen
64. Griffin and Sabine Trilogy (Griffin & Sabine, Sabine’s Journal, and The Golden Mean)—Nick Bancock
65. Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, to Take Control of Your Life—Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
66. Gemini—Carol Cassella
67. Batman Eternal, Vol. 1—written by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, John Layman, Ray Fawkes, Tim Seeley, Kyle Higgins; art by Jason Fabock, Dustin Nguyen, Mikel Janin, Guillem March, Ian Bertram, Riccardo Burchielli, Andy Clarke, Trevor McCarthy, Emanuel Simeoni, Derek Fridolfs, Guillermo Ortego, Brad Anderson, John Kalisz, Blond, Jeromy Cox, Tomeu Morey, Guy Major, Dave McCaig, Dave Stewart, etc.
68. Hawkeye, Vol. 3: L.A. Woman—written by Matt Fraction, art by Annie Wu and Javier Pulido
69. Chaka—Thomas Mofolo, trans. Daniel P. Kunene
70. July’s People—Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize winner)
71. Absalom! Absalom!—William Faulkner
72. American Primitive—Mary Oliver (Pulitzer Prize)
73. The Diary of a Young Girl—Anne Frank, trans. Susan Massotty
74. The Winter’s Tale—William Shakespeare

Or to break it down:
32 works of fiction, 20 of them graphic novels/trade comic collections and 12 works of adult (non-graphic-novel) fiction
19 works of YA or middle-grade fiction, 15 graphic novels/comic collections and 4 novels (although deciding what counted as part of this category was difficult)
9 works of nonfiction, 8 prose and 1 graphic nonfiction
8 works of poetry
 5 memoirs (all of them graphic memoirs)
1 play
41 (!) comic collections and graphic novels

Favorite adult fiction:The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—Michael Chabon. This isn't much of a surprise to me; The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay is one of my favorite books. I love the playful way Chabon writes complex, verbose sentences, as though he is inviting you into a game rather than simply showing off. It's a murder mystery and a love story and a neo-noir alternative history of the 1980s. What more could you want?

Favorite work of nonfiction: Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, to Take Control of Your Life—Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. A lot of the principles in the book weren't new to me (and it does have some of the flavor of a nineties self-book), but I still find myself wanting to hand it out to strangers on the street, like some kind of Oprah of good emotional/spiritual health: "You get good boundaries! And you! And you!"  

Favorite poetry: It's a serious stretch to pick just one. I read a lot volumes this year that I found myself recommending to others, including one by a college classmate (Diadem Me by Bethany Carlson). But my favorite was actually an old favorite: New Covenant Bound by Tony Crunk. We read it in my book club, and I worried that I might find my enthusiasm for the book had dampened over time. But I loved it every bit as much as the first time.

Favorite memoir: Again, I liked a lot of what I read in this category for 2015 (and I'm not a huge memoir fan—graphic or otherwise). But March (John Lewis, Andrew Ayden, and Nate Powell) wins. Don't avoid it just because you think you already know this story.

Favorite YA/middle-grade: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal. Origin stories can get repetitive, but G. Willow Wilson handles this one with expert care and humor. Kamala Khan is a character I feel like I've been subconsciously waiting for. A breath of fresh air.

The contest for my favorite book read in 2015 ended in a tie.

Asterios Polyp (David Mazzucchelli) is book I shouldn't have liked (an egoistical architectural professor has a midlife crisis) but that I ended up loving. If you think graphic novels can't be pieces of serious literary fiction, you need to read this book. I've never seen every bit of a graphic novel's visual art (lettering, coloring, line thickness, panel-size, etc.) play into the theme and character development quite like this before. Amazing work.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua) is technically fiction. But it is hands-down the best researched book I read in 2015. It's half footnotes. And the footnotes are delightful. It has all the fun of a steampunk adventure, and Padua's characters leap off the page (sometimes, out of their panels), but you will leave the book remembering more history about Victorian England and the first computer than if you had read a slew of biographies. I highly recommend this graphic novel, even if, like me, you think you aren't that interested technological histories.

Here, I usually list the "other books" I've read: things that were too short (or not "word/narrative heavy enough") to make the previous list. But given the number of individual comic book issues I read in 2015, this list is longer than usual. So I've included it below for consistency's sake, but I'm happy to leave you here. In my next post, I'll probably talk about my reading goals for 2016.

But what were your favorite reads of 2015?

The Power of Shazam! The Arson Fiend, #2—written by Jerry Ordway; art by Peter Krause, Mike Manley, Glen Whitmore, and John Constanza  
Power Pack: Star Struck, #58—written by Michael Higgins; art by Tom Morgan, Nel Yomtov, and Joe Rosen
Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight: Infected, Part OneWarren Ellis and John McCrea
Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight: Infected, Part TwoWarren Ellis and John McCrea
Raising Dion, #1­—written by Dennis Liu; art by Jason Piperberg
The Princess and the Pony—Kate Beaton
Cheetah Can’t Lose—Bob Shea
Robin: Buggin’, #23—written by Chuck Dixon; art by Aaron Lopresti, Stan Woch, Adrienne Roy, and Tim Harkins
Detective Comics: Rite of Passage: Shadow of the Sun, Part One, #618—written by Alan Grant; art by Norm Breyfogle, Dick Giordano, Adrienne Roy, etc.
World’s Finest: Worlds Apart, #1—written by Dave Gibbons; art by Steve Rude, Karl Kesel, and Steve Oliff
Green Lantern: Among My Souvenirs, #4—written by Gerard Jones; art by Pat Broderick, Bruce Patterson, Albert De Guzman, Anthony Tollin, and Kevin Dooley
Showcase 94 (Benedictions—Part 3: Vengeance and Forgiveness; Sparx!: Allure of New Orleans; The Atom: The Uncertainty Principle), #6—written by Chuck Dixon, Karl Kesel, and Len Kaminski; art by Phil Jimenez, Peter Gross, Tom McCraw, Scott Lee, Phil Allen, Brad Vancata, Fred Reyes, Rick Burcheett, Robbie Busch, etc.
Batgirl: Fresh Blood—Part Four, Settling Up, #59—written by Andersen Gabrych; art by Ale Garza, Jesse Delperdang, Wildstorm FX, and Rob Leigh
The Return of Donna Troy: A Golden Age to Conquer, #1—written by Phil Jimenez; art by José Garcia-Lopez, George Pérez, Martin Breccĭa, Nestor Preyra, Lee Loughridge, and Ken Lopez
Power Pack: Whose Power?, #27­—written by Louise Simonson; art by Jon Bogdanove, Al Gordon, Joe Rosen, and Glynis Oliver
Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! a Vagrant Collection—Kate Beaton
Batman: The Cult—Book One: Ordeal—written by Jim Starlin; art by Berni Wrightson, Bill Wray, John Costanza, etc.
Batman: The Cult—Book Two: Capture—written by Jim Starlin; art by Berni Wrightson, Bill Wray, John Costanza, etc.
The SheepOver—John and Jennifer Churchman
Days with Frog and Toad—Arnold Lobel (reread)
Frog and Toad Together—Arnold Lobel (reread)
The Secret Remedy Book—written by Karin Cates, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin (reread)
The Magic of Millicent Musgrave—Brinton Turkle

Images from HarperCollins, The University Press of Kentucky, Top Shelf ComicsKnof Doubleday, and Knof Doubleday